Q. How do you come up with ideas for new films?
A. Usually I let an idea simmer in my head for awhile and try not to do anything with it [for awhile]. That’s my way of testing whether it actually lasts, because I have lots of ideas that I get excited about one day, but then think are terrible the next day. So, often I don’t even write the idea down because I don’t want to make it concrete yet, just let it kind of exist and see if it’s going to actually last. Sometimes it’ll be months later, sometimes it’ll be many years later, that I realize that the idea has stuck around in my mind, at which point I actually start getting serious about trying to do something with it. From there, I’ll either try to flesh it out in my mind, write it down, or talk it out with someone and see how people react to it. It’s kind of a one-step-at-a-time kind of thing.
What stories are you interested in telling?
It’s pretty much whatever comes to my mind. Usually though, they’ll fall under a certain kind of umbrella—often they’ll be more dramatic than comic in nature, though not always entirely. But I’ve realized that my sweet spot is sort of earnestly emotional, or a little on the dark side, or somewhere in the drama section. I find myself continually leaning towards these [themes] and a lot of the types of movies I love are from the 70s and are very character driven, human-level kinds of stories. But it’s not really like I’m searching for different plot lines. It’s more of finding a world that really interests me, or a piece of music or an image will inspire something and in someway I will [think to myself], “I want to make a movie about this kind of person.” And then you build a story from that.
Hollywood is notorious for offering distractions to successful people. How have you been able to maintain focus?
It definitely can be very distracting. So it’s always important to really keep your priorities straight and focus on stuff that you want to see instead of second guessing what other people want to see. Sometimes it’s hard to hold on to in Hollywood, but my film education background, from the movies I watched as a kid to my college program, was stringently anti-commercial. And in a way that [background] has been really helpful as an antidote whenever I find myself drifting too far into chasing a fad. As a filmmaker or an artist, ultimately what you want to do is make stuff that lasts longer than opening weekend. You want to create works that are going to last 50 years or 100 years.
How does a filmmaker get better at their craft when they aren’t able to practice making films everyday?
I think a big part of it is working with people you trust. I really like bouncing ideas off of people. Even when I first moved out here, I moved out with some people who I had gone to school with and I knew shared the same tastes. And then as you make more films, you kind of meet the people who you want to keep in your retinue, so to speak. So I just think there’s something to the idea of slowly building a team of people that become your creative partners. And they also help shelter you from the distractions and keep you on track. Film is just such a collaborative medium, I just get so much out of who I actually work with - it can dictate so much.
What advice would you give to someone who wants to be a successful screenwriter or director?
You have to sort of strike the balance between being really collaborative and also knowing when to fight for what you believe in. It can be easy to kowtow to people, say yes to everything, and wind up straying from your original vision. Anytime you’re creating something, everyone around you is going to have an opinion, suggestion, or criticism. And one of the key things - all the way from writing and filming through editing - is knowing what advice to take and what advice not to take. It’s being important to everything you hear, but very discerning on what you actually act on. For example, sometimes you might get a suggestion that’s not great, but it [ends up pointing you] to a different problem that you hadn’t seen before. That again speaks to the idea of working with people who share your taste. Of course, that doesn’t mean working with “yes men”, because that’s really bad too, but working with people who speak the same language as you, because not everyone has the same taste. It’s a balance.
So is finding a creative balance the hardest part of working in Hollywood?
[It’s hard] to be persistent. For every “Yes” you hear, there are multiple “No’s”, and for every thing that seems easy, there are a bunch of other issues you have to fight for. You just have to be aware of the realities of the industry but also very, perhaps even delusionally, ambitious. It’s also to tough because I’m more comfortable writing scripts and thinking about shots than navigating the politics of Hollywood. That’s why I’m not a producer and that’s why I need to work with producers and agents and people who are actually able to do that well. That’s maybe the hardest thing.
What other creative things do you do besides making film these days?
I wish [I did other things still]. I feel like it’d be probably very enriching, but I don’t at the moment. I used to play drums a lot, but the process of making a film - from writing the script, to working with the music, directing the actors, figuring out shots, and editing it - involves so many different types of work I find [the process] very fulfilling. But I find that sometimes I get more inspired by going to museums or reading a novel than I get from watching a movie. Not all the time, I still watch tons of movies, but sometimes I think it’s so important to be aware of other disciplines of life.
There is just so much fodder for inspiration out there and there can be a risk sometimes of staying in your bubble so I constantly try to push myself, otherwise I’ll just sit and watch movies all day. And I think that if you do nothing but watch movies all day, you end up just making movies about movies. Take [Quentin] Tarantino - he seems like the epitome of the movie-nut filmmaker. Tarantino structures his films like novels. But novel-type structures are just not normal in film, and the soundtracks in his movies also reveal someone who spends a ton of time listening to music. So you’re seeing a wealth of other interests filtered in through his works, and that’s what helps make them great.
Originally published September 29, 2014.
Damien Chazelle is an award-winning director and screenwriter whose newest film, entitled “Whiplash”, will be released on October 10th via Sony Pictures Classics. The film won the 2014 Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival, making it Mr. Chazelle’s second Sundance prize in the past two years. A successful screenwriter, Damien’s writing credits include The Last Exorcism Part II, Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench, and Grand Piano (starring John Cusack and Elijah Wood). A talented musician as well, Chazelle was also one of the founding members of the indie-pop band Chester French while he was a freshman at Harvard University.